Tristan looked at the floating head, his own canting. Where was the rest of him? “Got tired of me breaking your neck, Little Brother?”
Justin’s giant head looked down at him in disdain. “You’re confusing delusions with reality.”
“Aren’t you carrying the over-inflated ego thing a little far? I prefer you in a more manageable size.” Did Justin really think this was fooling him? “How about you shrink yourself, and bring the rest of you back so I can kill you again.”
“Ah yes, killing me,” Justin sneered. “I wonder what it says that you can only accomplish that when you’re delusional.”
“Can you blame me? The only time I get even a little quiet is when you and father are dead.”
Justin’s eyes narrowed, and Tristan smiled. He’d hit a nerve, and it was taking his little brother all his self-control not to say whatever he wanted to.
“You want to blame me for that, don’t you?” Tristan grinned. “You can’t think of a reason as to how you constantly talking is my fault?”
“Who’s to blame isn’t important,” Justin said, his eyes flicking to Tristan’s right. “What I want to know is how you arranged the rescue. I know you never sent a message out. You were scanned and searched thoroughly, and there is no tracker anywhere on or in you.”
“It’s called a tag, Little Brother. Learn the language if you’re going to play at being a mercenary.” What was on his right? He looked and saw Alex, trying not to look stunned. He understood the reaction; Justin could be rather full of himself at times.
He noticed the speculative way Justin was looking at Alex, and Tristan got angry. Or he tried to. The drugs were making it hard. He stepped before Alex, blocking him from Justin’s view.
“No,” he said flatly. “Not this time.”
The ridiculously large head tilted an ear.
“He’s mine. You had your chance to have him, but he came back to me. You’re not getting him again.”
The head floated around him, and Tristan turned to continue protecting Alex from his brother. It hit the wall and…vanished through it?
Tristan looked around. Where had his brother gone to now?
The head reappeared where it had first been with an annoyed expression. “How about you move away from the wall? This thing can only move within the constraints of the room.”
Tristan smiled. So there was the flaw in Justin’s plan. He backed up against the wall, keeping Alex behind him. He protested and tried to get out, but Tristan didn’t let him. Now Justin couldn’t get to him.
“I guess you’re going to have to get the rest of yourself in here, Little Brother, if you want a chance to get to him.”
The Justin-head looked at him, then around, fixing its gaze on the other human in the room. Tristan didn’t remember killing him either. There were a lot of people he hadn’t killed here today. Where were they coming from?
The human was a few inches shorter than Alex, with a mohawk and golden skin. He had a knife-harness on, but nowhere near as many knives on it as Alex had accumulated. Tristan got a sense he was a weaker version of Alex.
“How did he contact you?” Justin asked the man.
“Why are you talking to him?” Tristan asked. “You never bothered with any of them before.”
“Before?” Justin looked confused and annoyed. “Before, I didn’t have the vermin you called running all over my ship and killing my people. Do you have any idea how much of a disruption that is? How did you know I had most of the people who could actually deal with them off on missions?”
Tristan shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe you told me? You’ve been ranting so much since I’ve been here, I haven’t really paid attention to anything you said.”
“I haven’t been ranting! That wasn’t me, it was your delusions! I swear, Isabel overdid it with this last batch.” The giant head glared at him. “I am real. Everything else was your sick imagination.”
Tristan smiled and motioned to Justin. “You’re real?” He chuckled. “You’re a giant head without a body and you want me to believe that you are real?”
Justin sighed in annoyance. “No, clearly this is a hologram. But I’m the one controlling it.”
“So you, who’s dead, is controlling a hologram, which is real? Are you sure you aren’t the one on drugs? Because even to me that doesn’t make sense. And I’m pretty sure I’m crazy at this point.”
Alex tensed behind him, tried to wriggle out, but Tristan held him there. He wasn’t risking Justin pulling some trick to get to him. This had to be some sort of distraction to get to Alex.
“How dense can you be?” Justin asked.
“Same as usual. Only the Termagiel can alter their density.”
The head let out a scream and Tristan glanced over his shoulder at Alex. “I think I’m finally getting to him.”
Alex glared back. “Let me go.”
“No. I’m not risking him getting you again.”
“Look around, Tristan,” Justin said. “Do you have any idea where you are?”
“Truthfully,” Tristan replied, “at this point I’m really hoping I’m buried under the rubbles of my house, dying.”
Justin stared at him, muzzle open. “You want to die?”
Tristan stared back. “Haven’t you listened to anything I said in those… How long have I even been here? Alex is dead, the only thing I want is to be with him again.”
“Isn’t that him behind you?”
Tristan rolled his eyes. And his brother called him dense? “I’m not letting you get to even my delusional version of him.”
Justin shook the confusion out. “And you think the Source is going to let you be with him? Have you looked at him? He’s human.”
Tristan smiled. “I have looked at him, a lot. And if the Source thinks it can keep me from him, I’ll kill it, just like everything else.”
“You’d be dead, so how would you kill it?” Justin sounded baffled by it.
“Why would that stop me? I’ve killed you hundreds of times already and there you are.”
“I’m not— You know what, I’m wasting my time. She did too good of a job on you.” The giant floating face smiled. “I do have a piece of bad news for you: you’re not going to die. I’m going to drag you back to the cage and I’m going to watch you suffer in it.”
Tristan shook his head. “I don’t see that happening.”
“You dragging me anywhere. You don’t have any arms, or legs.”
“Tristan, do you think I’m stupid?”
Tristan smiled. “You don’t really want me to answer that, do you?”
Justin’s too-large face became serious. “No, I don’t. I’m not going to be the one dragging you back. I’m going to have my people do it, after they’ve dealt with that vermin you brought on board. In the meantime, I’m going to let this room soften you up for them.” The light spread to reveal a giant room. Tristan had seen station hangars that were smaller.
“If you expect boredom to do the job, you’ll be disappointed.”
“Oh, believe me, you will not be bored. This was my predecessor’s favorite place on the ship. Actually, her predecessor. He called it the Arena. He’d decant prisoners, put them in here, and watch them fight. Really archaic, if you want my opinion. He claimed to want to see what they were made of. Of course, then he’d just throw them back in the tubes, so what’s the point? I’ve been using it to see who could work with others, instead of being too much of a loner. There’s a surprising number of criminals willing to cooperate once they realize it’s a way to be relatively free.”
Tristan raised his hand. He looked at it and tried to remember where that motion had come from.
“What?” Justin asked, annoyed.
“Am I supposed to care? I mean I know you love to hear yourself talk, but if any of that is for my benefit, you should hurry it along. I’m not planning on being here all that long. You said you only exist in this room, so once I’m out you’re going to have to leave me alone.”
“The point,” Justin growled, “is that this room can be made into anything, so I’m going to make it into your worst nightmare.”
“Oh great. You’re not going to shut up, are you?”
“What does that mean?”
“You said my worst nightmare.” Tristan grinned. “That’s pretty much it. You never shutting up.”
Justin smiled back. “Oh, I think I can come up with something worse than that, just for you, dear brother. You might have hidden him from my view, but the scanners in the room see everything. I’m incorporating him into what I have—” The head turned away. “—what? Can’t you see I’m busy? Yes, I know about them, why do you think I’ve had to get the civilians involved? Can’t you deal—” The head sighed and turned to look at Tristan. “Those vermin of yours are starting to be a pest. So—”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?”
Justin’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Vermin are pests, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that if you have vermin on the ship, they’d be pests too.”
The giant head searched his face. “I have no idea if this is you trying to be clever, or if you’re just too drugged up to make any sense anymore.”
Tristan shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I’m drugged up.”
Justin sighed. “I’m getting her to weaken the next batch; you’re impossible to deal with like this. Enjoy what’s coming, I’ll come back to check in on you after I’ve dealt with that vermin.”
“Who was that?” the other human asked.
“My annoyance of a brother.” Tristan headed for the other door. “Who are you? I don’t remember ever killing someone who looks like you. I certainly haven’t killed you recently. Maybe I should kill you now?”
“Don’t,” Alex said.
Tristan looked over his shoulder, but Alex wasn’t looking at him. The other man was taking out his gun. “Those don’t do anything anymore. I tried to use one to kill myself with.” He frowned. “I think I did. After Justin told me he killed you, things got fuzzy.”
“He didn’t kill me.”
Tristan rolled his eyes. “He sent people to kill you which, in his eyes, means he did it. Don’t try to understand him. He never made much sense, even when he was a kid.” He looked back at the door, and the air shimmered.
His foot came down on a rock, and he looked up at a bright blue sky. He was at the bottom of a canyon stretching in both directions as far as he could see.
“Well, that was easy.” The air was hot and dry. He looked for shade, but there was none close by. “I really thought getting off that ship would take more work.”
“What just happened?” the other human asked.
“We escaped the ship,” Tristan replied. “Well, I did. You two are just along for the ride. I do wish we’d made it to a cooler place.” He headed forward. The rock didn’t look right, he realized. It seemed to shimmer as he walked. Alex and the other human stayed by him even if they weren’t walking. Lucky them, being dead did have its advantage.
“Hard-light hologram,” Alex said. “This place must have been expensive to build.”
“So, is any of this real?”
“Of course not,” Tristan replied. “Not to you, anyway. You’re dead.”
“That’s really getting annoying,” the human said. “How come he isn’t moving away if he’s walking?”
“Tristan,” Alex called, “how does a hard-light holographic system work?”
“Combination of forcefield and holographic projection. Hard light’s a myth.”
“So I’m guessing the forcefield is just moving under his feet. The computer controlling the hologram adjusts the scene to match, which is why the rock walls are shimmering; the system isn’t perfect.”
“Can you shut it down?”
“No, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Aren’t you going to even try?”
Tristan looked over his shoulder. The other human was touching his ear. Alex took the earpiece out of his pocket and looked at Tristan with a sad expression. He put it back in.
“There’s no point. No terminal in range.”
“I thought all you had to do was put that in and talk,” the human said.
“I need to connect to something and go from there.”
“Handed that to Mary. She was scared I’d go through hers and steal all her secrets.”
“You would have,” Tristan said.
“Of course, but I doubt she has anything in there I’d find useful. Regardless. I wasn’t going to argue with her; she needed the information to help you.”
“So all we can do is walk?” the human asked.
“He said he was going to soften Tristan up, so I’m guessing there’ll be more to this. That was Justin, and he’s your brother?”
“You never mentioned you have a brother.”
“He isn’t worth mentioning, trust me on that. All he does is scheme to have me killed.”
“Because he thinks I want to kill him.”
“And do you?”
Tristan turned and grinned at Alex as he walked backward. “I didn’t initiate anything, if that’s what you mean, but don’t worry. I’m going to make him pay for killing you.”
“There’s something ahead,” the other human said.
“How can you see anything? This place is so bright I’m pretty much blind,” Alex replied.
Tristan faced forward again and saw what the human meant. “People.”
“Since you saw them first, I’m going to guess they’re real.”
“But they’re holograms, right?” the other human said. “So we don’t have to worry about them.”
“You ever seen what happens when a ship hits a forcefield?” Tristan asked. “It isn’t a pretty sight.”
“Great. At least the head said he just wanted to soften him up. So it might be painful, but we’ll survive.”
“You can’t survive what it takes to soften him up,” Alex said.
“I have a lot more practice at it.”
Tristan counted seven forms in the distance, still too indistinct to make out, but probably humans. The odds of landing on a planet populated with aliens was just too low. Even the planets aliens originated on didn’t remain theirs for long, after humans discovered them.
“Will blasting them do anything?”
“I’m going to guess it depends on how the program’s designed. If this was made to provide a realistic challenge, I’d say they’ll behave like living beings, but it would still be a waste of power to shoot them. They aren’t actually alive. If all that’s wanted is to make someone suffer, then they can be indestructible.”
The human sighed. “I am really regretting volunteering to come with you. Tim would enjoy this a whole lot more.”
“If what you told me is true, Tim would have died long before we got here. You saved his life.”
“Why do you think I volunteer? He’s a crewmate.”
He was close enough now to make out colors: a lot of gray, with some red highlights. It looked like they all wore the same thing. The other two were silent. He heard Alex pull knives out of sheaths. The other human did the same.
When he got close enough to make out individual details, Tristan stopped. He looked behind him and was relieved when he saw Alex there, in his gray and crimson pants, shirt, and jacket. He was squinting and shading his eyes.
The problem Tristan had was that if Alex was behind him, approaching, why was there also seven of him in front?
“What’s wrong?” Alex asked when he was even. “There’s only half a dozen of them, I think.”
Tristan was shivering.
“Crimson,” the other human said, “they all look like you.”
With so many Alexs, how was he going to know which one was his?
He felt a hand on his arm. The Alex next to him was looking at him. “I’m real,” he said. He sounded convincing. “Those are just holograms.”
“How can I know? What if Justin managed to distract me and he replaced you somehow? What if you’re with him, right now? What if you never came back to me? What if you chose him over me?” The horror wasn’t as loud as he thought it would be. The thought of Alex picking Justin should terrify him, but it was only worrying him right now.
This Alex placed his hands on each side of Tristan’s face, digging his fingers in the fur at the back. “I would never pick him over you. I hate him for what he did to you. If I get to him first, you won’t have to worry about killing him, because I’m going to do it.”
“That’s what Justin would tell you to say.”
Alex’s eyes flared with anger. “Then hit me.”
“No!” He tried to pull away, but Alex held him. He could break out, but what if this was his Alex, in spite of the outrageous order?
“Would he ever think of getting me to tell you that? Is there any way he’d know how my life with you was?”
“I’m sorry.” He felt so small looking at him. “I know it was wrong. I was scared. You scared me, Alex. You scared me by how strong you are. How you endured everything, I—”
“Crimson,” the other human called.
“We’re talking!” Tristan snapped.
“Yeah, I hear, but I think I have the answer to your problem. The real Crimson is going to be the one not attacking you. They got tired of waiting.”
The other Alexs were walking toward them, face blank, knives in hand. They all held the same knives. Tristan looked at the knives the one next to him was holding—the same ones too. Was he safe? Alex had plenty of reasons to hate him, and Justin would have convinced him this was for the best. His Alex could be among them, ready to kill him.
He wanted to die, but if Alex was the one to do it, did it mean he didn’t want to be with him anymore?
“Alex, what am I supposed to do?”
“But what if I hurt the one that’s you?” they were getting too close and Tristan tried to back away, but he moved in place. His feet were moving, but he wasn’t going anywhere. “Alex?” The fear was weak, too weak. Something wasn’t right. Why wasn’t he running away in terror?
Alex looked angry, but when he spoke, his voice was controlled. “Then you hurt me. I can take it, you know that. You’ve hurt me often enough.”
“No! I don’t want to hurt you anymore. You deserve better than me hurting you.”
“Damn it! You’re always hurting me, don’t you get it? That’s what we’re like. It doesn’t matter what you do, you hurt me. And I take it. That’s who we are.”
“No! I am not going to do that anymore.”
“You’re doing it right now! Do you have any idea how painful it is for me to see you like this? I want the monster back.”
“But you deserve so much better, Alex. I want to give you—”
“Who fucking cares what I deserve? You’re who I chose. That means pain.”
“Crimson!” the other human yelled.
“What?” He and this Alex yelled at the same time, turning.
The man didn’t have to say anything. Tristan saw the other Alexs were almost in striking range. This Alex turned to receive them. Tristan backed up, and this time he moved away from them.
“Fight!” the Alex he’d been arguing with yelled, striking and cutting the Alex before him. The knife went through the stomach, cutting deep, but instead of guts and blood, it was light that bled out?
Tristan stopped, watched as the Alex closest to him cut the other Alex’s throat open and he shattered in shards of light.
“They aren’t indestructible,” the other human said as the Alex fighting him also shattered into light.
“They aren’t real,” Tristan whispered to himself. Of course they weren’t real. He looked around. None of this was real. It was the drugs doing it. He chuckled.
He laughed and threw himself at the four other Alexs. He clawed one who didn’t bother defending himself. His claws barely felt resistance as he opened him from crotch to neck. Another one was on him, moving slowly, clumsily. Tristan grabbed both of his arms and pulled angrily. It was still muted, but his outrage at the parody of who his Alex was filled it.
He turned and grabbed for that Alex. He moved under his arm, elbowed him in the side, and stepped away, grinning. Tristan smiled back. Oh, this one was better.
This Alex came at him with his knives flying and Tristan watched, stepping back, waiting for the right moment. He moved, claws out, and struck. He felt the resistance of the fabric. This Alex’s reflexes were fast enough, and he moved before the claws went in too deep, leaving red lines behind them.
They broke apart. This Alex smiling, crouched, waiting for another attack.
Tristan looked at his claws, blood staining them. He, this Alex, and the other human were the only ones standing. He smelled his claws. It was blood. It could only mean one thing.
He’d struck his Alex.
He began trembling.
“No!” his Alex yelled. “Attack me!”
Tristan took a step back, shook his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you. I thought you were one of them.”
His Alex’s eyes became clouded with pain, and that turned to hot anger. “No, you don’t fucking get to do that to me. You’re going to attack me right now. You’re going to show me that you’re getting better.”
“I can’t! I swore I’d never hurt you again, and I already broke my promise.”
He could see the scream coming on his Alex’s face.
“Crimson,” the other human said. “If you want to be pissed at something, you’re better doing it at those things than at your man.”
When his Alex turned his angry gaze on the new Alexs walking in their direction, Tristan felt better. He never wanted to see that look on his Alex’s face.
He looked at the incoming Alexs and tried to get angry. He wanted to rage at them for having caused him to hurt his Alex again. For causing him to break his promise so soon after making it.
It would spike, then be doused.
That denial should make him rage even more, but nothing came, so he went at them with determination. If he couldn’t rage, he could still break them. This time they moved faster, but he still made quick work of the two before him.
“Is it my imagination,” the other human said, “or are they tougher?”
“Adaptive programming,” his Alex replied. “Pretty much standard with fighting programs.”
“Then how long until they get too good for us to defeat them?”
His Alex looked in Tristan’s direction, grinning, as he planted one knife in another Alex’s chest and the other in his neck. Tristan smiled back, ripping the Alex he was fighting into two.
“Oh,” his Alex said, “that’s never going to happen.”